Is it just a game?

Virtual violence has parents and politicians worried about real-world aggression. The science behind those fears hasn't made it to the next level.

September 12, 2021
Los Angeles Times
By Melissa Healy

If the makers of the nation's most popular video and computer games were to square off with politicians in a virtual world, the exchange of fire would be furious, the escape maneuvers audacious and the screen, in the end, a jumble of photorealistic carnage.

Violent games breed violent behavior, charges a growing group of lawmakers, who have called for tighter government controls in the marketing and sale of violent games. But the software entertainment industry, its annual $28 billion in sales paced by a nation's thirst for action games, is shooting back. There is no proven link between game violence and violent behavior, say industry leaders, only a link between politicians and pandering to the public's fears.

Add an arsenal of fantasy weapons and immersive sound effects and graphics, and it's the kind of exchange that could leave players pumping their fists and ready to reload. But the real-life battle is leaving many parents and researchers bewildered, divided and ready to unload.

Los Angeles father and screenwriter Gregg Temkin calls it his "constant conflict" — this wavering between fear and complacency about violence in video games. Temkin's 14-year-old son, Josh, plays a slew of nonviolent games, but he also likes to get together with friends and play the fantasy-violence game "Halo 2" and the graphically violent "Grand Theft Auto."

Temkin says he has read plenty about these games' purported effects — both good and bad — and finds that the experts are as confused as he is. He believes that playing them "desensitizes you" to real violence. "But I don't know if I've got a leg to stand on or not. And I'm not sure that if it does happen, that's a bad thing," he adds.

Josh and his friends have heard some of the furor over video game violence. He says it makes playing "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas" more fun to know that adults are wringing their hands over it.

First-person shooter games don't make him angrier, Josh says, and he never "feels like" the shooter, just like a kid controlling an image on a screen. But he suspects that some kids he's played with are not quite so detached.

Research published in recent months hasn't helped clarify the risks, or benefits, of these games. In mid-August, members of the American Psychological Assn. adopted a resolution calling for less violence in video and computer games sold to children. Reviewing 20 years of studies on the subject, psychologist Kevin M. Kieffer told fellow mental health professionals during the meeting that playing violent video games does, on balance, make children more aggressive and less prone to helping behaviors.

"There really isn't any room for doubt that aggressive game playing leads to aggressive behaviors," says Iowa State University psychologist Craig A. Anderson, one of the pioneers of research in the area and a guiding force behind the association's resolution. "The naysayers don't have a leg to stand on."

But the association's action came just weeks after University of Illinois researcher Dmitri Williams, in a study of 213 players of a violent online game called "Asheron's Call 2," concluded that a month of steady, intensive play did not increase participants' aggressiveness. His study did not focus on children, but included some players as young as 14.

Williams suggests that members of the American Psychological Assn. have gotten ahead of their research.

"I don't think the data to date warrant the strength of their claims," he says. "I don't think they're going to be proven wrong long-term, but I don't think they've proven their case yet." Williams adds that his research findings have made him "persona non grata in some quarters, champion of truth in others."

His study, published in the June issue of Communications Monographs, has provided defensive firepower to the entertainment software industry at a time when it has come under siege. The Federal Trade Commission this fall is to launch an investigation into the ratings system for video games — particularly the rating that made the sex- and violence-laden "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas" available to most teens.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), who called for the FTC study, is set in the coming weeks to propose legislation to tighten enforcement of video game ratings. And a group of Democratic and Republican senators has proposed that the National Institutes of Health oversee a comprehensive, $90-million study on the effect of violent media, including video games, on children's development

In recent years, Democratic politicians such as Clinton, Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut and Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich have joined longtime Republican critics like Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas and Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania in taking the software industry to task. The broadsides against video game violence have escalated in recent months, after a watchdog group found an Internet "patch" that can add explicit sex scenes to "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas." In March, Clinton told a forum in Washington, D.C., that the game "encourages violent imagination and activities and it scares parents."

The digital defensive

The video game makers aren't taking such claims lying down. The Entertainment Software Assn. has dismissed the American Psychological Assn.'s resolution as the preordained conclusion of a group whose collective mind has long been made up. And it has rebuked Clinton and other politicians for playing politics with science.

"I think she's got genuine concerns, and I respect that," says Douglas Lowenstein, president of the industry group. "I think at the same time, among many Democrats, they believe this is a good way to identify with values voters. I don't personally think that's a good read [of the electorate], and I think there are better ways to do that."

Lowenstein cited efforts in three states — Washington, Indiana and Illinois — in which politicians and activists have adopted measures aimed at restricting children's access to violent video games, all on the argument that they inspire violent behavior. In Washington and in Indiana, those measures have been struck down as unconstitutional.

A new Illinois law, to go into effect in January, would prohibit the sale, distribution, rental or availability of video games rated "Mature" to children younger than 18. The law, which the gaming industry is challenging in courts, would levy misdemeanor charges against retail or rental establishments that allow minors access to games rated M.

Lowenstein and others point to a range of studies that have found no significant relationship between playing violent video games and increased aggressiveness.

In 2001, the U.S. surgeon general concluded there was "insufficient evidence to suggest that video games cause long-term aggressive behavior." And in April 2004, the Journal of the American Medical Assn., summarizing research in the field, found consensus "lacking" on whether violent video game play fuels violent behavior in kids.

"If video games do increase violent tendencies outside the laboratory, the explosion of gaming over the past decade would suggest a parallel trend in youth violence," wrote author Brian Vastag. "Instead, youth violence has been decreasing."

At the same time, a maturing generation of gamers (and parents) has become more vocal in defense of the action video games with which they have grown up.

Steven Johnson, author of "Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter," has argued that today's action video games can help players learn to prioritize, improve their hand-eye coordination and teach them how to organize virtual resources and teams to pursue a shared goal. Studies conducted on military recruits and surgeons have supported some of those claims.

Small changes

Many of those who have studied video games' effects longest say that people who deny any link between game violence and real-life violence are setting the bar of proof a bit too high.

The "naysayers," as Anderson calls them, fail to look at video games not as a single cause but as a contributor to violent behavior, say many mental health researchers. They point out that children and adults who play violent video games have varying risks for — or predispositions toward — aggressive actions. Although some people might play violent video games with little risk of acting out, some research suggests that for those with a genetic or temperamental inclination toward aggressiveness, violent game playing may tip a person toward violent behavior.

Finally, critics of violent video games caution that if large populations (or a whole generation of children) continue to rack up heavy lifetime exposure to video game violence, even a small change in their attitudes might add up to a significant societal shift — a less friendly schoolyard today, or a more ruthless national culture later on.

Dr. Jeanne Funk, a psychologist at University of Toledo in Ohio, has measured exposure to violent video game play in young children for most of the last decade. Her research has found that, in groups of children between first and fifth grade, those with the highest past exposure to violent video game play are significantly more likely to condone aggressive acts and less likely to express empathy.

"It's not just that someone is going to go out and shoot up a school," Funk says. "It could be a person that's less likely to donate to victims of Hurricane Katrina, or less likely to comfort a friend who's upset."

At Indiana University School of Medicine, psychologist William Kronenberger has teamed with radiologists to look at the brain activity of children playing violent video games. What they found suggests that violent video games might shift the way the brain works. In a study published in 2004, Kronenberger and his colleagues found that when playing a violent video game, children with a diagnosis of disruptive behavior disorder had less brain activity in the frontal lobes of their brain than did children who had no history of chronic violent behavior. The frontal lobes are the area of the brain most responsible for controlling impulses and weighing competing options.

In a second study, published this summer, Kronenberger and his colleagues divided children according to violent media exposure, including television, films and video games, and watched their brains at work. They found that the brain-activity patterns of "normal" children with high levels of violent media exposure looked very much like those of children with disruptive behavior disorder. A history of intensive exposure to violent media, they suggested, might have helped rewire the brains of children — even those without a predisposition to violence — in a way that could lead those children to more impulsive behavior.

Kronenberger likens the relationship between violent video game playing and aggressive acts to that between eating fast food and obesity. For a child with obesity risk factors, including overweight parents, a diet of cheeseburgers might speed the way to obese status. But even for a child with no risk factors, a steady diet of fast food might also, in time, result in obesity.

Family matters

If there is one partial antidote for the potential risk of violent video games, say psychologists, it is family — in particular parents or trusted adults who are aware of what their children play, understand its content and speak up against — or at least about — it. Whether adults pull the plug, enforce limits or just discuss the difference between video game play and real life, Anderson, Kronenberger and Funk all said, parental awareness might blunt some ill effects that violent game play might have.

It is a proposition with which the Entertainment Software Assn.'s Lowenstein agrees, though he notes that parental participation — both in the purchase and often the play of action games — already exists. In 83% of instances where underage players are playing games rated for more mature players, parents are involved in the purchase or rental of the games, says Lowenstein, "and no law is going to fix that."

Temkin says he has shared his views on video game violence with his son. He dislikes the way they seem to make him cranky, the way they make him more resistant to doing his homework, the time he spends on them and the seeming addictiveness of all that electronic input, Temkin says. Josh has heard it all — and seems to agree with his dad on a fair bit of it.

"I don't feel like I really get anything out of it," acknowledges Josh, who says that three weeks of camp — with no video games — has blunted his zeal to play a bit.

Although Josh says he often disagrees with ratings that would put some games out of his own reach, he agrees with his dad that his younger brothers, at 7 and 11 years of age, should not play some of the games that he is allowed to play with friends.

At the same time, Temkin says he has grown to rely on his own sense of his son to guide his views about the games and their potential dangers. He knows his son is not violent, and he is confident no video game would lead his son to engage in behavior that would be so out of character.

"They used to scare the crap out of me," Temkin says of the experts' warnings. "I was absolutely convinced they led to violent behavior, until I had a child who played them. But I still think the world would not be a worse place if 'Grand Theft Auto' never existed."